09. December 2010 · Comments Off on Teaching · Categories: Teaching

I love teaching. Really, I do.

I have some colleagues who sort of moan about it; it’s something so many have to do, but don’t really want to do. I was that way when I was younger and thought all I should be doing was playing my oboe on a stage somewhere. For a time I didn’t teach at all; my kids were young and it was just a chore I could do without. But now I find it incredibly enjoyable and rewarding.

Even the toughest students can be fun; the challenge of figuring out how to get a rhythmically challenged student to count — the challenge of getting an expressionless one to burst out of what appears to be an expressionless life — the challenge of getting a student who can’t play anything but a nearly furious forté softer and the primarily pianissimo student louder — even the challenge of getting a student to simply learn to smile (years ago I had the saddest student ever and by the time we were finishing up with our time together she was laughing along with me at my really horrible jokes) or, in our not uncommon therapist mode, getting one to realize that getting a B in school isn’t the end of the world … I really do enjoy it all! My “order of retirement” has teaching as the final thing I’ll give up. It feeds me, and I do hope I manage to feed the students as well.

There are some bad teachers out there — always have been — but I wonder if the “old school” teaching still goes on: the teaching with slapping rulers on hands and berating children. I sure hope not. This article, by pianist Byron Janis, begins with a teacher like that. But then it moves on and I loved the end:

By chance, on Feb. 20, 1944, the great Vladimir Horowitz heard me play in Pittsburgh. In town for his own recital, he had been invited by the manager of the Pittsburgh Symphony to hear me, a 16-year-old pianist, play under a 14-year-old conductor named Lorin Maazel. How honored I was when he later asked me to become his very first pupil! His one condition was that I not play for anyone during our first year. “During experimentation in becoming ‘bigger’ pianist, their opinions will confuse you,” he explained.

As my lessons progressed, he offered me pieces of advice that have proved invaluable:

•”You must make piano sing more. And colors, colors—you paint well in watercolors but must paint more in oils.”

•”You can be a big Romantic pianist and at first, you will exaggerate. Don’t worry. It’s easier to subtract from something good than to add.”

•”When you say something, you must underline it—you don’t play for you.”

•If he didn’t like the way a piece sounded, he would make me find my own way. “Please think about it more and bring it next time.”

Horowitz never played for me during lessons, but on many glorious evenings I was a privileged listener. It was impossible not to absorb some of that magnificent playing. That is one of the drawbacks of studying with a great pianist. You must say to yourself, “I wouldn’t do that”—and have the strength not to. Aware of the temptations, he would always say, “You want to be a first Janis, not a second Horowitz.” I battled for some years before I became me.

Teaching is a great responsibility, no matter what the field. You become instructor, parent, friend, diagnostician and psychologist—trying to understand and cure any problem that might arise.

I once had a gifted young student who became a wonderful pianist, but the artist in her needed to be developed. I couldn’t find a way to free her. One day, I happened to ask if she always walked home the same way. “Yes,” she replied. I suggested taking different routes: “You’ll make new discoveries. It will be fun.”

Within a month, I heard signs of the artist emerging. That simple suggestion seemed to touch the right nerve and her playing started showing signs of freedom. I was amazed. Strange—teachers never can predict what works.

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